We’ve already seen several movies which depict the post-9/11 anti-terrorism intelligence landscape, most notably in the Oscar-winning Zero Dark Thirty, but almost all of these films have been from an American viewpoint; lots of dealings and spying still go on in Europe by Europeans, in a style still a bit reminiscent of Cold War espionage, but with a decidedly more insidious air. Nobody knows who the bad guys are because the bad guys aren’t any specific country or even group of people; radical militants could be anywhere. No one knows the world of spying, “The Secret World” as he calls it, more than author John le Carre, writer of possibly the best Cold War spy novels including The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. His 2008 novel, A Most Wanted Man, is the basis for director Anton Corbijn’s new film of the same name. It’s a spy movie, but not even our main characters are sure who the enemy is.
Set in some indeterminate time in the years following 9/11, A Most Wanted Man is about a small group of off-the-radar German operatives who try to enact change any way they can, meeting resistance from the “Strike First” members of their own investigation group, as well as the Patriot Act-happy CIA who always want their little fingers in all the pies. The movie is a bit of an indictment of the extreme methods employed to catch people involved in terrorism and the subtle differences between coercion and torture. If you’re looking for a James Bond actioner, this movie isn’t for you; it’s much more complex and troubling than that.
Hamburg, Germany, the opening text says, was the site where Mohamed Atta planned the September 11th attacks, and since then it there has been heightened attention to foreign nationals and anyone of Islamic leanings. At the start of the film, a young and very worse for wear man named Issa (Grigoriy Dobrygin) comes into German from his native Chechnya, apparently searching for a man named Brue. Issa draws the attention of the covert anti-terrorist cell led by Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his final roles), but they don’t want to pick him up; instead, they want to see what he does. What he does is go to the home of some friends who put him in touch with an idealistic lawyer (Rachel McAdams) who in turn finds Brue (Willem Dafoe), a banker whose father had ties to Issa’s father.
Throughout the film, Bachmann’s team is seen everywhere the other characters go and are clearly well informed on what’s happening. But they’re after bigger fish. The believe Issa can get them closer to a Muslim philanthropist who they believe has been covertly funding terrorism. This bigger fish draws the attention of CIA representative Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) who offers to help Bachmann, but only for her own interests being met. What follows is a carefully calculating tightrope act in which Bachmann slowly puts his chess pieces in place to ensure success. But nothing’s ever as simple as all that.
This is a very low key film, but nonetheless incredibly tense and exciting in its own way. It’s a battle of inches and intellects, not guns and explosions. The film is about people trying to prevent terrorism at odds with people trying to get retribution for terrorism all while moving pawns who may or may not have anything directly to do with terrorism at all. Exceedingly complex, and quite rewarding as well.
Hoffman, of course, turns in a brilliantly understated performance as Bachmann, a schlub who is not taken seriously by his superiors, but who might be the best intelligence-gatherer working in Germany, and nobody knows it. He is forever doing his job and then having to go and explain himself to the trigger-happy people wanting to make a statement. His intensity is below the surface but very palpable and the way he entreats both Dafoe and McAdams, as well as several other characters, into being party this operation is some of the best writing and acting seen on screen in recent memory.
Dutch director Anton Corbijn has only made three features, but he’s established himself as a master of visual storytelling and underplaying the action when necessary. Coming from photography and music video, his shot compositions are like paintings and his use of muted colors really lends to the movie’s grey tone. Hoffman’s character is seen almost always wearing browns while everyone else wears shades of black, blue, and grey, signifying both his outsider nature and the warmth he doesn’t often display.
Unlike Tinker Tailor in which the enemy was clear, even if hidden in plain sight, in A Most Wanted Man, in keeping with the messy nature of this kind of war, the line between good and bad is much wider and more muddied. People have reasons for doing things that have nothing at all to do with good or evil. The war is in the shadows, in the darkness, behind closed doors. Successes and defeats are tiny in comparison but they somehow mean more to everyone.
It’s an engrossing, unsettling, and highly provocative film, and you certainly ought to see it if you get the opportunity.